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How Productivity Training Is Being Done Poorly – A Pair of Articles

In a pair of posts on HBR, Maura Thomas discusses problems with training on time management and personal productivity. She finds that training people only to prioritize incoming tasks results in scattered attention and, overall, lower productivity. Instead, she advocates training for attention management. I agree, based on my experiences with clients, and sincerely hope this sounds familiar to those of you who consistently read my blog.

She finds here that productivity skills training should, but doesn’t normally, center around three components:

  1. Clarifying role-level priorities rather than task-level priorities (look for an upcoming blog post on roles vs. tasks)
  2. Training for attention management instead of “time” management
  3. Implementing a comprehensive workflow management system (and here)

She also notes here that, when adopting a new productivity system, people often start well, but fail to change their habits in the long term. She finds three underlying causes of this failure:

  1. Her clients are convinced that some old habits are necessary, despite the overall inefficiency of the old system. New habits, like single-tasking vs. multitasking, are logical and make sense, but our old habits and beliefs are hard to change.
  2. The local environment doesn’t support the necessary changes. We resist making the environmental changes necessary to support the new habit, primarily because we don’t understand the power of the environment on our behaviors. (Note: Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit is helpful to address this and the previous bullet.)
  3. They overthink the new system, making it too complex. Since the system is too complex and difficult, they revert to old (easier) habits under stress.

The core idea is that changing habits and workflow systems is hard work. We have to use our best tactics: small, incremental changes over time, remembering to make time for the overhead of using the new habit/system, and patience with ourselves when we mess up and fall back to the old system. David Allen says that it takes at least two months of diligent effort to achieve the “clarity” that results from application of GTD.

So, we have two issues:

We need to focus on the right things – roles and attention. I hope you see that focus in my posts.

We need perseverance and accountability for developing our new habits. The best way to do that is to get a coach or an accountability partner. If you’d like to discuss coaching, contact me. Otherwise, talk with some people who have your same desire to improve. Share this site with them. Start getting together at least once a week. Discuss how you’re each doing on adopting your new habits. Share your story in the comments.

Question: How have you been trained, or have trained yourself, in time management and personal productivity?

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Summary of “Learning to Learn” (HBR)

The March 2016 issue of HBR includes an article titled Learning to Learn by Erika Anderson.

As the business and technological environment continues to change at increasingly high rates, it requires us (as knowledge workers, particularly) to adapt. Sometimes adapting involves learning new topics. This HBR article discusses the underpinnings of the ability to succeed in learning.  We have to resist our biases against novelty and acquiring new and difficult competencies. Such competencies will make us more valuable in our current jobs and the overall marketplace. Read on for a summary of how to identify and grow those underpinnings.

Aspiration Embracing change requires some desire to adapt, which can be difficult to muster. The author suggests boosting our desire to accomplish a change or learn by clearly identifying how the new thing will benefit us directly. We should link the change to something we already aspire to, such as a higher level of income or another skill that we would like to achieve. In this way, we can avoid our “not invented here” bias, by focusing on the positive aspects of a change.

Self-awareness We are typically terrible at knowing our skill level on many tasks. This article cites a study in which 94% of professors surveyed indicated that they were better than average. Many studies have replicated this result (look for a future post). This lack of self-awareness pushes us to think “I’m already pretty good; why do I need to get better?” Anderson recommends changing your self talk. As an example, she suggests we replace a thought like “I’m already pretty good at this” with something like “What facts do I have that show how good I am?” Such a thought will lead to greater openness to new ideas.

Curiosity Sometimes, we defend against learning a new skill because we think it is not interesting. But, most likely, there are people who currently exercise the skill – they must find something interesting, fulfilling, or valuable in it. If we can be curious, we can dig in and find out – read an article or talk to someone with the skill. It is likely that you can find something interesting or something more to be curious about.

Vulnerability It is tough for adults to admit that they need improvement. When we are beginners in the new skill, we feel inadequate. While this is frustrating and somewhat embarrassing, it is simply part of the territory. It is likely that people who already have the skill remember when they were learning and made novice mistakes. If so, they are equally likely to have patience with your naive questions and poor skill level. We might as well adopt a novice mindset and recognize at the outset that we will stumble around for a little while, and that we will get better over time.

Think through some of these ideas, get your mindset shifted, and get in and start learning.

Question: How are you maintaining your learning mindset?

Let us know in the comments.
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What Consumes Your Attention Controls Your Life

(With apologies for hacking the title of the Lifehacker post linked below.)

There is plenty of evidence that our brains are habit machines. Neuroscience finds that when neurons (brain cells) fire, they connect to other neurons. Over several times that a neuronal “chain” fires, that set of connections becomes smoother, kind of like a path worn through a field or forest by consistent traffic. In this sense, you become what you habitually think. In her book Rapt (which I haven’t read, but have heard good things about) Winnifred Gallagher comes to this conclusion: “Who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.”

There is also plenty of evidence that our brains have trouble differentiating between something we’ve imagined or viewed and something we’ve done. This means that, if your attention can be captured and you view something, a little part of your brain may think you’ve actually done it, or behaved in that way before. This, along with the path-building nature of our brains, means that our behavior can be “programmed”, at least slightly.

These two effects, habitual brains and misremembering, form the foundation of advertising and our attention culture.

As example, TV and the internet are finely tuned attention capture devices (see this Lifehacker post).

TV networks have had decades of learning about how to capture and keep our attention.  As the post says, we hang on for one more episode, during which our attention is directed to ads, which are also finely tuned to trigger our consumption – to modify our behavior. With TV, the purchase of an advertised item is separated from the advertisement itself, because we (as of this writing) have to go to the store or, depending on the time of night you are watching TV, make a phone call. This decision and effort represents a barrier to purchase.

The internet is also a finely tuned attention capture device that directs us to ads. However, it may be more dangerous because the same purchase barriers either don’t exist or are much lower in transactions on the web. (In fact, this HBR notes that retail businesses based on a storefront model need to rethink their strategy in the face of ‘ambient shopping’ on the web and mobile devices.) Therefore, our action (a completed purchase) is more closely connected to our intent (desire for a product) on the web than on the TV.

However, according to Gallagher, it is not merely our shopping and spending that is manipulated, but our very core, our thought patterns. Perhaps we should rethink how we deploy our limited attention.  We want to become what we intend to rather than what we attend to.

Question: How do you decide what gets your attention?

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